Knesset swearing-in heralds political stability, though discourse unlikely to soften

Netanyahu-led bloc holds clear majority but hasn’t finished talks to vote in a government alongside new parliament; 25th Knesset features 23 freshmen, dip in female representation

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

New Likud MK Boaz Bismuth at the Knesset's introductory session for freshman lawmakers, a day before opening session of the 25th Knesset, November 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
New Likud MK Boaz Bismuth at the Knesset's introductory session for freshman lawmakers, a day before opening session of the 25th Knesset, November 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The 120 members of Israel’s 25th Knesset will be sworn in on Tuesday, ushering in a right-wing, religious majority, many members of which have vowed to pursue a radical agenda, while providing Israel with long-sought domestic political stability after a cycle of five elections in less than four years.

Despite prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s vigorous efforts, Israel’s 37th government will not be sworn in alongside its lawmakers, as contested ministerial portfolios and disputed policy goals have yet to be reconciled in coalition agreements.

While the talks between Netanyahu and his far-right partner Bezalel Smotrich have come to a head over the assignment of senior ministry posts, the parties are expected to come to terms well before the December 11 deadline for forming a government. Comprising Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud, two ultra-Orthodox parties and the far-right Religious Zionism alliance, the coalition would be the most hawkish government in Israel’s 74-year history.

The Netanyahu-led bloc won a decisive 64 Knesset seats in the November 1 election — the first since 2015 that handed a majority to a bloc of closely aligned parties. However, it only narrowly won the popular vote, and nearly half the electorate bitterly opposes its right, far-right and ultra-Orthodox components. In accepting the task of forming a coalition on Sunday, Netanyahu acknowledged the national divides, and promised to govern for all Israelis — “those who voted for me and those who did not.”

The past 19 months have been especially turbulent politically, marked by mutual venom spewed between Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid and Yamina leader Naftali Bennett’s short-lived government and the Netanyahu-led opposition, which climaxed during a heated four-month-long election campaign.

Ahead of Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremony, Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy said that his hope is “that the 25th Knesset will be a positive turning point in the discourse and in the way Knesset members conduct their debates.”

Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy speaks to freshman Knesset members a day before the 25th Knesset opens, November 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Earlier on Monday, Levy told the crop of 23 freshman MKs that the outgoing Knesset was “a bad example of the way in which discourse is conducted in a democratic society.”

“There are difficult arguments here, but I recommend that you speak to the merits of the matter and not make ad hominem comments while conducting a respectful conversation,” Levy said.

However, the 25th Knesset is already shaping up to carry some of the mutual nastiness forward.

On Sunday, prospective public security minister and far-right Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir taunted Hadash-Ta’al MK Ahmad Tibi, tweeting that he should be sent to Syria after the veteran Arab lawmaker expressed his support for the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

“What are you waiting for?” Tibi tweeted back. “Deport me. You’re in power. Go ahead and deport me/us to Syria.”

Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir (right) shouts at Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi (left) during clashes in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, February 13, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90/File)

Ben Gvir campaigned on a tough-on-terror platform and advocates deporting “disloyal” Arab citizens along with those who carry out terror attacks. He has routinely called Tibi a terrorist and has been evicted from the Knesset plenum for doing so.

Tibi is a former adviser to Arafat and one of nine Muslim lawmakers in the incoming Knesset. The new parliament also only has one Druze lawmaker, 29 women and three openly gay lawmakers, spread across 10 parties. Within the expected coalition, demographic variation drops precipitously to nine women, one openly gay lawmaker and zero Arab parliamentarians.

Concerns raised by commentators about the lack of diversity are not ameliorated by some of the policies members of the incoming coalition say they will pursue. Among their most fiery are proposals to ban gay pride parades, reinstitute conversion therapy, roll back religious reforms and revoke state recognition of non-Orthodox conversion to Judaism.

On the security front, in addition to Ben Gvir’s deportation proposals, the would-be police minister wants to relax open-fire rules against Palestinian protesters and stone-throwers. He also wants to permit Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount.

All parties in the expected incoming government also support sweeping judicial reform that would place the judiciary under much more stringent political checks. In particular, the parties want to advance an override clause by which the Knesset can reinstitute laws invalidated by the Supreme Court, as well as place the judicial appointments process under political control.

Religious Zionism has also proposed canceling the main corruption charges for which Netanyahu is standing trial. Ben Gvir has gone further and said he would pass a law that would retroactively grant Netanyahu and sitting prime ministers immunity from indictment.

President Isaac Herzog will preside over Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremony, his first since becoming head of state in 2021. Staged as a festive affair, the ceremony is expected to include a Knesset honor guard, a military orchestra and a cavalry convoy.

Alongside Herzog will be Speaker Levy and Knesset Secretary Dan Marzouk.

New members of the Knesset at the Knesset’s introductory session, a day before the opening session of the 25th Knesset, November 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Levy, A Yesh Atid MK, is expected to soon be replaced as speaker by an MK from the incoming coalition, although this post, too, has yet to be finalized.

Marzouk has the distinction of leading the 120 incoming lawmakers in their swearing-in by roll call.

The standard oath of office for lawmakers states: “I commit to be faithful to the State of Israel and to fulfill with devotion my cause in the Knesset,” to which incoming lawmakers are expected to respond: “I commit.”

A minor outcry occurred in April 2021, when several Joint List MKs changed the wording of their oaths to commit to fighting “occupation” and “racists.” They were later re-sworn into parliament without the extra wordage.

The 23 freshmen MKs participated in a day-long introductory course on Monday during which they met with Knesset management, toured the labyrinthian building, and received an overview of the complicated and various parliamentary tools at the lawmakers’ disposal.

Marzouk, who taught incoming legislators how to use various tools to influence the parliamentary and public agendas, told the new MKs that although some days may slog into a bureaucratic routine, they are “acting in the service of great ideas.”

“Remember that at the end of the day, the goal is to build a better state and society, each according to his own method and view,” the Knesset secretary said.

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